In the Studio with Christopher Rizkallah

In the studio with Christopher Rizkallah, a Lebanese artist whose work is initiated by objects found in everyday life, modified, and converted to multiple forms. We met with Christopher to tell us more about growing up in Lebanon, his greatest influences, and unexpected sources of inspiration.

When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist?

It’s common for artists to struggle with the label and self-doubt often got to me in my early days of artmaking. I remember a conversation I had with my painting teacher about this in 2011 who made me understand that this doubt is part of the process and sometimes a driving force to push my practice further. That thought really stuck with me. 

At its core I think being an artist goes beyond physical output. I think my way of seeing the world and being able to articulate my interests in its oddities make me an artist.

Where are you from and what was your upbringing like?

I was born and raised in Lebanon in 1993 and lived most of my years there.  Despite the intermittent conflicts in the country, Lebanon was and remains an artistic hot spot in the region with an impressive cultural output.  I come from a family of scientists that gave a lot of importance to culture and encouraged me creatively from a young age. 

My career in managing art spaces in the country, encountering artists from Lebanon and across the globe has also had its impact on my work through discussing ideas and observing different artists’ processes. The local scene in the capital Beirut is small enough to feel like a community, which at times is what young artists need to grow and push their practice further.

Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. What inspired you to first pursue, and then continue to practice artistic work? 

It may sound cliché, but my artistic journey feels more like a calling than a conscious choice. I don’t remember a specific point where I took the decision to become an artist, rather things gradually became clearer as I went along. I started my undergraduate studies not fully convinced of my major in studio arts, but changed my mind by the end of the first semester when I realised how much being immersed in an artistic environment fulfilled me. I was selected to exhibit my work alongside established artists in 2013, while still pursuing my studies. Exhibiting work for the first time in a group show alongside more established artists was a pivotal moment for me.

What’s the message of your work? Where do they come from? 

I have always had an interest in the mundane, it has an ethereal quality which I try to complicate by twisting how it looks. Chaos is also a mechanism at play in my work, where the unpredictability of the machine results in the unknown iteration of an object. On a grander scale, the fragility of the physical world is similar to these mundane objects. My perspective on how changeable life is comes from lived experiences, living in a country with a sense of uncertainty and sometimes jarring tragedy, such as the explosion in the port of Beirut in 2020. In that light, the mundane things we take for granted can be temporary in their own way.

Who & what are your greatest influences?  

My recent influences are the works and writing of Hito Steyerl and the work of Wolfgang Tillmans. 

An unexpected source of inspiration?

The first thing that comes to mind is the Dial-Up internet connections from the 90’s. I am a child of the internet; I watched technology rapidly evolve and witnessed its many shortcomings. Even when faster speed connections became common globally, Lebanon lagged and could not keep up with the download size of online content. I remember how downloading a video would often interrupt, and the file wouldn’t play at all. Other times the “failed” video would half download but still be playable, transforming into something else bearing traces of the original file. I was fascinated by the fragility and physicality of the internet and digital media before even realising it. 

What do you want people to take from your work when they view it?

With my work I invite the viewer to travel the high rope between what is purely digital and what is more physical in medium. I invite the audience to engage with my complex relationship with the machine and consider the integration of technology in their everyday lives.

I intend my work to reflect on pivot points in human history that were, at the time, nothing more than glitches. The most recent of these glitches is the global pandemic where we are forced to re-evaluate our mode of living, prioritising survival and reconsidering artistic and cultural practice.

What events in your life have mobilized change in your practice?

My recent body of work is in response to the drastic increase in screen time and lack of studio space I faced during the pandemic. My physical space shrunk and my online presence expanded along with the feeling of isolation. My main medium used to be painting, but due to the digitisation of life, accelerated by the ‘move online’, I now combine different mediums. A friend gave me their home printer/scanner to document some of my smaller work, and that led to my experimentations with analogue inspiring my new process. 

What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a “good” piece of work?

I  think of my process as a conversation between me and the machine. I often jump between analogue and digital mediums, working in loops. Sort of like a power play, a “good” piece results from experimenting with objects and pushing the machine’s mechanical process to its limits. I do need to be in a good headspace, which I often catalyse by listening to the right playlist. Ultimately what produces “good” pieces of work are the accidents that happen.

Tell us the inspiration behind your works?

In Domestic Arrivals I examine a pink latex glove as a mundane household object, one that is worn down visually and physically from use. I produced iterations of the object, discoloured and nearing the end of its life. Scanning the glove and preserving it digitally, the recurring digitization and printing of the object, combined with the traces of the original form give new life to an otherwise disregarded item. It decays in a landfill somewhere while its  distorted image remains preserved in the process of data loss.

Something in the future you hope to explore?

I intend on moving from static visuals to other media such as sound and video. While I have developed my process of mechanical distortions. In the long run, I imagine myself building and experimenting with machines of my own invention, for which I would also take up coding.